Observing Human Rights: The Lost Link of Sports in Iran

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It was barely a year and half after the Revolution when the first sounds of intolerance and religious dogmatism were heard in the utterance of the man in charge of the fate of the nation’s sport, ‘Why are these donkeys playing in shorts?’ Davoodi-Shamsi was referring to the players of the national football team with his usual vocabulary. Still shaking from the resonance of such utterances, the broadcast of wrestling – a historic national sport – was banned from our television screens and so began the war against sport. Very soon with the cries of war, sportspeople were declared nothing more that ‘national traitors’ and ‘spoilt rich’.

Our sport became intertwined with political expedience as such actions were gradually accepted as the norm by the public. The see-saw tales of sportspeople and nouveau-politicians were tragic stories to tell. Any sport victory would dampen the nouveau-politicians malice yet before long their egotism would force sport into further isolation.

The Iranian Armenian Olympics

It can firmly be claimed that the Iranian Armenian Olympics whose torch would be lit annually at the Ararat Sports Stadium was the most organised stadium out of the reach of the politicians. It had successfully safeguarded the real essence and heart of sport and the footsteps of the political change witnessed elsewhere in Iran were nowhere to be seen.

Nevertheless, the narrow-mindedness of those steering the nation’s sport could not even tolerate the achievements in this old stadium and their unfair glances fell upon them – one day the manner of the dress of the young Christians was a problem and the next their actions appeared to offend the governing Islamic morality.

This was repeated often enough until one day a misguided representative speaking at the Islamic Consultative Assembly called the stadium ‘a nest of corruption’ and ‘a public bar – a place for wine drinkers’. And so the sports of Iranian Armenians became the new target and ruined bit by bit. Initially Armenians were denied visas to participate in the annual games and then Iranian Armenians comings and goings were restricted. This went on until the gathering of the Armenian youths at a sports stadium was deemed ‘unjustified’ and with it sparks of discrimination took flame.

Apartheid in Sport

With the collapse of Armenian Sport, Christian sportspeople had no choice but to try and find position among other teams. This proved to be a futile attempt which held nothing more than humiliation, ill treatment and discrimination for them.

The presence of zealot Muslims as sports managers had very unpleasant consequences for the Armenians. The following is an example of the treatment they received at the hands of a religious manager:

A man named Seyed Kazem Oliyaie was appointed as the executive manger of the popular Esteghlal Sports Club. The procurer for the club was a hard working and much respected Iranian Armenian called Vahik. He was liked by all and no one doubted his loyalty and sincerity. Nevertheless, Oliyaie could not tolerate his presence due to his Christian religion. In a Nazi style act he sacked Vahik claiming that as a Christian Vahik was unclean and the water he brings for the players is unclean and he, Oliyaie, had a religious duty to cleanse the place of such undesirables. These kinds of ill-treatment are experienced by Christians who have weathered the storm and somehow have managed to remain in the national teams.


Despite the many years since those dark Taleban-like actions, sports mangers still require their members to answer about their religion. ‘What is your religion?’ must be answered in every application form regardless of it being for a small local team or membership in a national sports federation. In other words the sportsperson must declare his/her faith before joining. It goes without saying that their political loyalty to the Islamic regime must be ascertained before any acceptance.

Official Religion

The lucky religious minorities in Iran are Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who based on the Islamic Constitution have been accorded limited rights. Yet, as stated they suffer varying levels of discrimination. The plight of those not recognised such as the followers of the Bahá'í faith or Buddhism is far worse. The extent of the discrimination is such that even Sunni Muslims at times choose to identify themselves as ‘Shi’a’ with the hope of evading future problems. It would therefore not be surprising if others also chose to lie and write down ‘Muslim’ in the box.


It goes without saying that women have suffered the most in this ideological approach to sport. Enforced Islamic cover, prohibition of male coaches attending training sessions, lack of enough competent female coaches and prohibition of participation in many sports such as swimming which has recently been extended to the martial arts as well tell a sorry tale of discrimination. They are not even allowed to attend football matches. The docu-film ‘Offside’ shot in Iran told this story eloquently. The film highlighted the discrimination and the determination of the women to carve a place for themselves. Yet discrimination is polluting the air. When will this air be clean again?

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